by its cover- by nightfall
Title: By Nightfall
Author: Michael Cunningham
This is the story of Peter Harris, his wife Rebecca and her much younger brother, Mizzy. Peter and Rebecca's marriage has lost its luster. For Peter, an art dealer in New York City, this could prove fatal to the relationship. So he goes on a search of sorts for new beauty, true beauty which he believes to be rather trapped in youth. His quest takes him outside of his marriage, but not outside of the family. To be like Mizzy is what he wants...or perhaps it is better stated that he wants to possess what Mizzy has and lacking that, possess Mizzy himself.
The main character (I cannot call him a protagonist because I'm not sure that he was that good), has all the things that would enable him to make a life change: money, connections, education. But instead he just meanders the streets of SoHo, develops a here-again-gone-again stomach issue and thinks himself miserable. I will admit that my current frame of reference tainted my perception of this 'conflict'. Struggles have abound for those in my social and family circle in trying to get to a place where they can afford to change their lives. The recession hit us hard. Subsisting was task enough. With all of his advantages, I had very little patience for Peter's pithy discontent. I wanted to say, "Educated, employed adult, be the change you want to see in the world!"
I found the book pretentious and grasping. The word 'desultorily' appears twice in the span of two pages. The use of not-well-known artists is liberal. While that fits with Peter's career as an art dealer, it made me feel left out, particularly when Cunningham would use an artist's work in simile. The style, the slow pacing told that the author it wanted to be philosophical and contemplative, perhaps a commentary on our culture's fascination with one aspect of beauty captured in youth and newness. But the first-person narrative keeps the reader trapped in Peter's head. It's unfortunate because he is the least interesting person in his life.
Peter remains largely unchanged, selfish and kind of childish in this 'woe is me' state until a few paragraphs from the end. The miscommunication, or more fairly, the missed communication, between Peter and his wife reaches it pinnacle at this point. For some reason he believes that he should be free to pursue what he feels is missing in their relationship, but his wife is not allowed the same because...he doesn't want her to be?
It's as though the fumes from his gallery and the dust from the pieces and their packing materials that are moved in and out clouded Peter's eyes and stopped up his reasoning to be mindful of the fact that there is no one set form of beauty. There is beauty in change, age, and the frozen statue. Working, living with art, in a place like New York City, he should know this. He doesn't need to search for beauty, it is there if he would be look...really see. Perhaps that is the irony Cunningham meant to reveal: how blind we can be to something that our circumstances say should be obvious to us.